United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 3:46 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, I welcome the debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing it. It is very timely, because it enables us to step back from the day-to-day business of Parliament and government and take a view on what may be happening and what may be going wrong. I agree with him, and it was said also by the previous speaker, that the stresses and strains are, if anything, getting worse. I congratulate the noble Lord on the way in which he introduced the debate. I know that there are many distinguished speakers still to come. I wish the right reverend Prelate all the very best in his valedictory speech and I hope he has enjoyed the time that he has had in this House.

About 30 years ago, a historian called Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued, as Members will know, that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end and the world was settling on liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, like reports of Mark Twain’s death, this was very premature, and the debate today takes place against a backdrop of global tensions between democratic and autocratic states, and it is by no means certain how things will play out. I mention that because I have the same feeling about the future of the United Kingdom. I am not at all clear yet how it will turn out.

I welcome the report by the Select Committee and congratulate its chair, members and staff on producing it, because it is a very important source as background for this debate.

Nations are capable of self-harm. I do not want to be too provocative, but it may be that in the future people will come to look back on the referendum of 2016 in that light. In the context of today’s debate, it strikes me as interesting that this is a Government and a Prime Minister who say that they got Brexit done, but I am not at all clear that that is the case. It is somewhat ironic that the party whose official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party should be presiding over the stresses and strains already identified by the two previous speakers and which, as I have said, are getting worse.

There are other aspects too. I want to mention just one. Every day, I submit a Question in the hope that I will be selected, and each day I fail. I will never be selected for the England cricket team on the basis of my batting average. The Question that I have been submitting is about the future of Horizon Europe and the extent to which our scientific community can co-operate internationally, which is at risk at the moment, as Members may know. I worry that if we are excluded, the shared scientific venture that helps bind the union together will also be at risk and may disappear—that is just one element of what I might call the collateral damage of current government policy. Of course, we know that the Government’s proposed Northern Ireland legislation to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol, which to some extent is unsolvable, contributes to these tensions.

To take Northern Ireland for a moment, the stresses on the union caused by the unresolved Northern Ireland protocol are plain to see. Only this week in this House, we had a debate about access to medical services for women in Northern Ireland. What was interesting about that debate was that a lot of Members—including those who supported the amendment to the Motion—argued that devolution was not being allowed to work properly and that the Government were imposing their view. That was the tension. I also looked into the Grand Committee yesterday to catch a glimpse of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill being discussed. I heard more than one noble Lord regret the fact that it was not the Northern Ireland Executive who were discussing the Bill.

I can understand that point of view, but we all know why, despite the recent elections, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not yet even been able to elect a Speaker and get itself established as a working Assembly. The apparently intractable issues of the Northern Ireland protocol—which, in fairness, were foreseen when John Major and Tony Blair went together to Northern Ireland in 2016 to warn against the possible difficulties of a certain outcome—are still with us. I do not yet claim to know how things will turn out, but the House will be aware of the possibility that, over time, the views of the people in Northern Ireland might change so that, one day, unification with the Republic may seem preferable to a problematic life within the UK. We will have to see.

To take Scotland, which has already been mentioned, the stresses put on the union by the outcome of the referendum are very clear. We know that Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and the Scottish National Party has been able to use that result ever since as the single biggest reason why Scotland should have another independence referendum and vote to secede from the UK. We know that the current Government have stated that they have no intention of allowing indyref2 but I do not know how much longer their position can be sustained, and it may go ahead anyway in one form or another. If there is another referendum, it would be good to have a really honest debate about the realities of the choice.

As for Wales, the history is different. I have often been to the Senedd myself and I think it has established its own method of devolution, which was emphasised by the Covid experience that we all lived through. The leader of the Welsh Assembly emerged as a figure who had perhaps not previously been appreciated. References have been made to the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and we will wait to see what the outcome of that is.

In the short time I have left, I am not sure that I can suggest any long-term solutions, although I find myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, that imperial condescension by the centre is unlikely ever to be the solution to anything. Our constitution has of course grown in a very different way from that of other countries—such as when a politically motivated group of people gathered together in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new constitution. Ours is strengthened by its flexibility, but one problem—I must finish now—is that the form of devolution that we have is what you might call asymmetric.

I end by saying that my fear for the long-term future of the UK is partly about the UK’s standing in the world. If we ever did break apart, our position would be for ever and fatally weakened, as indeed would our self-esteem. In those circumstances, if we were to break up as a country, could we imagine retaining a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations? I do not think so.

I do not think that history has ended. We still have our future in our hands, but this Government have to take the future of the union a lot more seriously than they are doing now. The Prime Minister in particular needs to live up to the responsibilities that he has.